australian English language change and slang

Australian English slang – part three: originality

From origin to originality … In the first two blog posts about Australian English slang, author Susan Butler explored the roots and British English influences of Aussie slang. In this final part, she answers the question: ‘What makes Australian slang special and original?’. Susan Butler is Publisher of the Macquarie Book of Slang (Revised Edition 2000).


Australian English’s special areas of creativity would seem to be sport, in particular Aussie Rules, e.g. boundary rider, desperation football, fresh air shot, mongrel kick, rainmaker. From sport it is a short distance to politics where older colloquialisms like dorothy dixer and donkey vote have now become standard terms. Others are: duchess (to treat as if a duchess, lavish largesse on), free kick (transfer from the football use to mean ‘an easy opportunity to score off the opposition’), rort (as in ‘rorting or stacking the branches’).

Australian slang in popular belief is recognised for two attributes, the first being its black humour and pervasive irony, its constant downplaying of events and downsizing of people. The second is its reportedly huge range and vast lexicon.

The black humour comes from its colonial origins where grim humour was a strategy for coping with grim situations. It is particularly evident in phrases allowing for an allusive surprise such as the following found at the headword useful in the Macquarie Book of Slang:

useful as …
a bucket under a bull
a dead dingo’s donger
a dry thunderstorm
a glass door on a dunny
an arsehole on a broom
an ashtray on a motorbike
a piss in a shower
a pocket on a singlet
a roo bar on a skateboard
a sore arse to a boundary rider
a spare dick at a wedding
a submarine with screen doors
a third armpit
a wart on the hip
a wether at a ram sale
a witch’s tit
the bottom half of a mermaid
tits on a bull
two knobs of billy goat poop

The belief that Australians have more slang at their disposal than any other English language community I think springs from the Australian habit of using slang in situations where other cultures would stick to a formal register. This has the effect of making Australian slang more notable and noted. A moment’s reflection on the wealth of American slang would make one query the pre-eminence of Aussie slang. There is no scientific measurement of language varieties in these terms, but it would seem that we are all equally gifted in all the registers of our variety.

There is plenty of evidence in the Macquarie Book of Slang of our reliance on American slang, as for example in such catchphrases as HeLLO with a heavy emphasis on the second syllable, and Don’t go there! as an attempt to avoid an undesirable topic of conversation. But there is still an awful lot of American slang that we don’t touch, because it doesn’t come our way or it seems irrelevant to our circumstances or it just doesn’t take our fancy.

Australia is still building on its heritage with, for example, boundary rider.  In colonial Australia the boundary rider patrolled fences that stretched for hundreds of miles.  Today we have the boundary rider at an Australian Rules Football game – the mediaperson who patrols the sidelines, occasionally reporting to the commentary box.

We borrow, we adapt, we interpret, we bend things to our use. It’s a skill that we should be proud of. It’s probably Australian culture. The end result is still a unique Australian blend and a unique Australian view.

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Susan Butler


  • The ornateness of Australian slang seems Southern to this Yank(ee). I wonder if the habit of colorful phrases like “as useless as tits on a boar hog” or “like a dying calf in a hailstorm” (both habitual with my Southern wife) came to Australia with the influx of Confederates after the U.S. Civil War.

  • I should have written “an influx” rather than “the influx”; I didn’t mean to imply that such an influx actually existed.

    Googling for [southern phrases] turns up lots of lists; feel free, O Australians, to pick over these, find interesting ones, and try to popularize them! “More nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs” and “too dumb to pour piss out of a boot [with the instructions written on the heel]” strike me as very promising.

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